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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Scottish Clearances Part Five: Highlands

Yellow on map shows poor quality land.

Why has the clearance of the Highlands been remembered when the clearance of the Lowlands as not. One reason is that the Highlands were still being cleared in the 1850s and attracted the attention of Karl Marx.

The last process of wholesale expropriation of the agricultural population from the soil is, finally, the so-called clearing of estates, i.e., the sweeping men off them. All the English methods hitherto considered culminated in “clearing.” As we saw in the picture of modern conditions given in a former chapter, where there are no more independent peasants to get rid of, the “clearing” of cottages begins; so that the agricultural labourers do not find on the soil cultivated by them even the spot necessary for their own housing. But what “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland.
This revolution, which began in Scotland after the last rising of the followers of the Pretender, can be followed through its first phases in the writings of Sir James Steuart  and James Anderson.  In the 18th century the hunted-out Gaels were forbidden to emigrate from the country, with a view to driving them by force to Glasgow and other manufacturing towns. As an example of the method obtaining in the 19th century, the “clearing” made by the Duchess of Sutherland will suffice here. This person, well instructed in economy, resolved, on entering upon her government, to effect a radical cure, and to turn the whole country, whose population had already been, by earlier processes of the like kind, reduced to 15,000, into a sheep-walk. From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut, which she refused to leave. Thus this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres on the sea-shore — 2 acres per family. The 6,000 acres had until this time lain waste, and brought in no income to their owners. The Duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 2s. 6d. per acre to the clansmen, who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. The whole of the stolen clanland she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, for the most part imported English farm-servants. In the year 1835 the 15,000 Gaels were already replaced by 131,000 sheep. The remnant of the aborigines flung on the sea-shore tried to live by catching fish. They became amphibious and lived, as an English author says, half on land and half on water, and withal only half on both.

As well as Marx, newspapers like the Inverness Courier, the Scotsman and the pre-Rupert Murdoch Times reported on the more dramatic, that is traumatic, incidents of  clearance. But while there were expressions of public sympathy for the victims and outrage against the landowners, the absolute right of property owners to clear their lands of people remained. It was not until the 1880s, a hundred years since the process of clearance began in the Highlands and Islands that the ‘Crofters’ War’ brought it to an end.

The root of the problem in the Highlands was that there was very little arable land but a lot of rough grazing land. In the summer, the rough grazing land could be used to feed cattle and small  flocks of sheep. The people, however, needed the arable land to grow enough oats to feed themselves through the winter. This limited the numbers of cattle and sheep the land could support. But if the arable land was used as pasture for cattle or sheep, larger herds of cattle or flocks of sheep could be kept. The livestock could be over wintered on the better quality land and then allowed to graze on the poorer quality land in the spring and summer.

On the other hand, any growth in the human population would be difficult to sustain without the risk of a bad harvest leading to starvation. Growing potatoes rather than oats as the staple crop was a way to support a larger population but a failure of the potato crop would also lead to starvation.

Alongside this problem of how the people who lived on the land were to be fed as their population grew was another one. This was the wider shift from an economy based on subsistence to an economy based on money.  This was a gradual change in the Highlands. It was possible for landowners who saw themselves, and were seen by their tenants, as successors to the ceann-fine or ‘head of the clan’ to maintain traditional land-use practices and the traditional economy. In good  harvest years their tenants would pay their rent, in bad harvest years they would not. In very bad years, the landowners would provide food to keep the tenants from starving.
However a series of poor harvest years combined with population growth could lead to an accumulation of rent arrears. This reduced the landowners income from the land/people. If there was then a harvest failure and the landowners had to buy food to keep the people from starving, debts rapidly mounted. This either bankrupted the landowners, forcing the sale of the land or pushed the landowner into the new economy. In either case the result was the same- the new landowners or the existing landowner would start clearing the people from the land to make way for sheep.

The advantages of replacing people with sheep were two-fold. Firstly, from the end of the eighteenth century until wool started arriving from Australia in the later nineteenth century, the price of wool remained high. This was a result of greater demand as the industrial revolution was applied to the woollen industry. This made sheep farming a profitable form of land use.

Secondly, in the new economy, poor people who were at risk of starvation were seen as a financial burden on landowners. Either the landowners had to buy food directly for their starving tenants or indirectly via parish poor rates. Overseas or internal emigration relived the wealthy of this oppressive burden and made their lands more valuable. Thanks to the Reverend Thomas Malthus, it could also be argued that landowners who allowed their tenants to multiply beyond the ability of the land to support them were immoral if not outright criminals.

The new economy acted like a slowly tightening vice on the Highlands and Islands. In its iron grip, the old world and its Gaelic culture was year by year, eviction by eviction, township by township forced to the brink of extinction.

Was there an alternative? Was clearance inevitable?

 In terms of land-use, there were alternatives. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were six iron furnaces working in the Highlands. They were fuelled by charcoal made from wood  felled from trees up and down the west coast of the Highlands and on many of the islands. Keeping a charcoal based iron industry going would have been difficult, but its existence does show that there were areas of forest and woodland in the Highlands and Islands.

If the areas of forest had been extended through new plantations combined with improvement through liming and drainage of the arable areas along with a more mixed (cattle and sheep) form of livestock farming, the  ecology of the region would have benefited in the long term. Small scale industrial developments -wood-working, boat-building, leather-making, woollen mills and the like- could have provided sources of employment and income.

This would have required adopting and pursuing a region-wide economic development strategy, alien to the spirit of the times. Landowners would have had to agree to forgo the instant profits generated by sheep-farming. And, as the Lowland Clearances showed, the necessary social and economic changes would still have led to the loss of traditional ways of life and culture.

As the later nineteenth century experience of the Lowlands, especially the rural south showed, the increasing tempo of the industrial revolution had the effect of undermining the viability of the non-farming rural economy. The tanneries, small cotton mills, breweries, brickworks, slate-quarries and other rural industries could not compete with the cheaper costs of larger scale rivals once the railway system cut transport costs.

But even in the Highlands scattered signs of the industrial revolution were present. The photograph shows a coal mine at Brora in Sutherland.


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